In the heart of the heartland, in a hardworking Mississippi River town, in a state that Al Gore carried in 2000 by only 4,144 votes, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts gave the good people a lesson in biology and religion.
"Dubuque, heavily German Catholic, was for years Iowa's most Democratic city, and still is sometimes unless abortion is the issue," notes the Almanac of American Politics.
"I believe life does begin at conception," Kerry told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald in a story published Sunday.
That was the biology part of Kerry's little lecture.
How curious. One would think that in a city surrounded by beautiful farmland where the sheds are full of hogs, people would know the rudiments of human reproduction about as well as they know animal husbandry. It's as if Kerry had visited MIT to declare: "I believe that two plus two does equal four."
But then Kerry's choice of words was even more curious. He didn't say: "Life begins at conception." He said he "believes" life begins at conception -- as if he could with equal plausibility have said he "believes" life begins when a baby first cries, or when the umbilical cord is cut, or when the child begins to crawl, or walk, or talk, or get arthritis.
Clearly, Kerry is saying that when life begins is a subjective opinion rather than an objective fact. Even more curiously -- and here is where he brings religion into it -- he suggests that his own subjective opinion on when life begins has been determined not by scientific observation or study but by his religious denomination.
Here is the fuller context of what Kerry told the Telegraph Herald: "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception. But I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist . . . who doesn't share it. We have a separation of church and state in the United States of America."
If you take Kerry seriously here, it raises questions about the quality of his thinking. His logic appears to be: 1) When human life begins is not a scientific fact but an "article of faith" determined by one's denomination; 2) we have separation of church and state in America; and 3) therefore, prohibiting abortion is legislating a religious doctrine and is thus forbidden.
But following through on this logic could make it impossible to enact legislation prohibiting the abortion of any human being at any age. A religious denomination -- or a cult of atheists -- could declare that life begins at 2 or 92. Would Kerry enforce his "article of faith" on them? How could he justify it?
The truth is that a law banning the killing of unborn babies, just like a law banning the killing of 2-year-olds or 92-year-olds, is not based on denominational religion. It is based, rather, on applying an objective moral principle to an objective fact in the interest of protecting a basic human right. The moral principle: It is wrong to deliberately take an innocent human life. The fact: The unborn child (as Kerry himself "believes") is a human life, just as the 2-year-old or 92-year-old is a human life. The basic human right preserved is the right to life itself.
Yes, the objective moral principle here comes from God -- as does "Thou shalt not steal," which protects the basic right of private property -- but it does not belong to any religious denomination. It is universal and precedes them all. It applied when Cain killed Abel; it applies when each American president puts his hand on the Bible and takes the oath of office.
Presidents may pursue policies that accord with this principle or violate it. They can act rightly or wrongly. But they cannot change the principle itself -- any more than they can change the facts of human biology.
Kerry's argument that he cannot apply his own "belief" on when human life begins to how he acts as a lawmaker is not only absurd, it explodes his claim to leadership. If he won't act on his own "belief" when he believes human lives are at stake, when will he do so?